Published Oct 14, 2014A new post-apocalyptic shooter named Destiny just blew away Guardians of the Galaxy's opening box office bonanza. In fact, the game shipped $500 million in the first 24 hours and sold $325 million in the first five days to claim one of the biggest entertainment launches in history, whereas Guardians, the year's biggest film, earned $161 million worldwide in its opening weekend. It took a month to match the sci-fi shooter's first day.
This would seem like yet another opportunity — after launch-day takes like Grand Theft Auto V's $800 million or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's $500 million — to trumpet gaming's dominant place in pop culture. Thing is, as big as gaming is — and as big business as gaming is — it still isn't mainstream.
Destiny, a gorgeous slab of science fiction that combines elements of massively multiplayer online games with first-person shooters as it tells the story of humanity's survivors 700 years from now, is a new original IP franchise from Bungie, an iconic brand in gamer circles, but pretty much unknown in gen-pop.
Some have heard of their signature series Halo — which had similarly impressive-for-their-time 24-hour sales records with the first two sequels taking in $125 million in 2004 and $170 million in 2007 — but Bungie is not exactly Pixar as far as name recognition. And only a fraction of those who know about Halo have actually played any of the games.
Still outlets like the UK's Guardian newspaper used Destiny — specifically, Paul McCartney co-composing the score and writing the theme song — as "a sign of the increasingly mainstream nature of videogames." But while everyone might know who Macca is, do you think they'd recognize the meaning of PvP, raids, instances or MMO?
It's easy to consider something mainstream when everyone you know knows about it. Remember when The Suburbs won that album of the year Grammy a few years back and "Who is Arcade Fire?" started trending on Twitter? This wasn't some obscure indie upstart, but one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Imagine how many older, non-twitter users were saying the same thing in the privacy of their own homes?
But they at least have theoretical access to Arcade Fire. There are 500 million iTunes accounts, plus YouTube, streaming services and about two billion CD and DVD players out in the wild. Not to mention radio.
Know what the installed base of game consoles is? The current gen console sales stand at 7.1 million Wii U, 5.1 million Xbox One and 10.2 million PS4. The last gen topped out at a cumulative 267 million worldwide, though many gamers owned multiple consoles.
Console gaming is by its very definition niche because there just aren't that many consoles out there compared to machines that play television, movies or music. All the stats boasting about how many "gamers" there are (the ESRB claims 58 percent of Americans, while a study last year pegged the worldwide total at 1.2 billion) have a wide, smartphone-fuelled definition that includes my wife's Simpsons Tapped Out addiction and my father-in-law's computer Solitaire obsession. Those are indeed games, but neither of them would consider themselves "gamers," nor would they ever play something like Destiny.
I dig casual mobile games, too, but it's bizarre to put Angry Birds and Destiny in the same category. The former, by the way, actually is mainstream — Angry Birds games have been downloaded over two billion times, whereas Destiny's opening day haul equals about eight million copies sold, thanks to console gaming's high cost per unit.
The biggest-selling console game in history is Wii Sports, which was bundled with every Wii sold, to account for 80 million copies, as was the next game on the list, 1985's Super Mario Bros, but at a little less than half those numbers. Even Grand Theft Auto V, last year's top-selling game, has only moved 17 million copies so far (though the PS4 and Xbox One re-releases will goose that a bit).
Don't get me wrong, that's a lot. So let's call it a big niche. It has expanded well beyond the kids-and-nerds stereotype and will continue growing as those who grew up on gaming get older and keep playing. But console gaming likely still won't ever reach the cultural penetration of film, books and TV.
Why? Gaming is hard. It's just so much easier to read, watch or listen than it is to play, at least when not counting casual games. Even if the popularity of a title like Destiny boosts mainstream awareness of gaming, it's inherent complexity will keep it from ever actually going mainstream.
But that's not something to begrudge. The best pop cultural products aren't made for everyone. They're made for you.